From education to employment

Lessons learned in supporting social mobility for students in further education

Reflecting on last week’s A Level results, Simon Ross, Acting Principal at Newcastle Sixth Form College (NSFC), offers his insights into the importance of colleges and universities striving for a culture of inclusivity and diversity that supports students from all backgrounds to thrive.

Results day is significant for students all over the UK, as they get an indication about their next steps and potential pathways into university. This year, we were incredibly proud to see an increase in our students achieving A and A* results. Although the credit belongs to our students working hard to achieve these top grades, our success comes back to NSFC (and all of NCG’s colleges) being inclusive and providing opportunities for all. 

As the North/South divide in A Level attainment increases, there are calls for sixth form provisions in the North East to become even more selective than they already are. However, the success of our learners shows the value in A Levels being inclusive, and I would argue there needs to be more inclusivity across colleges and universities to give young people equal access to opportunities that could change their lives.

NSFC is all about inclusivity and tackling social disadvantage. The North East has one of the lowest rates of progression to university in the country, yet 84 per cent of our students who completed A Levels in 2021 progressed to university – a statistic which is on track to remain strong following this year’s results. 

Students here are twice as likely to be in receipt of free college meals than A Level students nationally, are more likely to have attended a school with below average GCSE results, and 61 per cent of our students originate from postcodes with below average progression to higher education. 

Despite these challenges, we don’t limit the aspirations of any young person and strongly believe in giving students the opportunity to get the best outcome from their A Level journey. Our entry requirements to study A Levels offer a lower GCSE grade threshold than most other sixth forms in the region, and we provide more support for students – something that we really believe in, as young people from low-income backgrounds are four times more likely to become socially mobile if they attend a university*.

Student-centric curriculums

At NSFC, we level up the chances for young people by providing a curriculum that is inclusive, aspirational, academic and adds value by supporting students to progress onto high quality destinations, primarily university. We do so by putting the students’ needs and well-being at the heart of our curriculum and educational ethos. 

Building a strong and trusting relationship between students and teachers results in an honest and productive rapport in the teaching process. This means that teachers can give constructive feedback to help students better their work and themselves. It also means our teachers can work with their students to highlight skill areas that need work and from that, they can adapt their teaching in order to develop those skills in a more bespoke way for each student. 

One of this year’s students Jess Bate achieved two A*s and one A, and has been offered a place at Oxford University to study Psychology:

“My time at Newcastle Sixth Form College has been amazing. I was inspired by my teachers and given the extra encouragement I needed to get the grades and aim for Oxford. I have always had a passion for Psychology and the subject came to life at sixth form. The college offered a great inclusive environment so I could feel positive and comfortable to do my very best.”

We continue to prepare students for the future by structuring our teaching for independent study which will assist their learning experience and transition to university or career progression. Through a hybrid learning structure, including sharing resources on systems like Microsoft Teams, the teachers can provide students with materials which they can use alongside their own independent study. 

Post-pandemic learning

Ahead of this year’s exams, a major focus went into building student confidence, as they missed out on the practical experience of sitting their GCSE exams due to the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Regular in-class assessment, as well as multiple mock exams, were sat to provide students an idea of what to expect and prepare them for the day itself.

We used regular conversations with Personal Development Coaches to discuss future ambitions with the students and the steps to take in order to achieve their goals. Alongside these, we also gave the students access to catch-up tutors, which covered a wider range of subjects, rather than just focusing on mathematics and English like many other colleges. This allowed students to target their learning, work towards their goals and contextualise their learning pathways to their individual desired results. 

Lui Bauer, who achieved three A*s and will be going on to study filmmaking at Manchester Metropolitan University, added:

“Attending Newcastle Sixth Form College gave me the opportunity to really develop my passion and interest for film and production. I was fortunate to get opportunities to work with industry leading bodies like the British Film Institute and the positive approach taken across my time at college enabled me to get the results I really needed to progress to university.”

Lessons learned

One of the challenges further education continues to face is the North-South divide when it comes to grades, and this year is no different. However, the impact of the pandemic has been felt more severely in some regions compared to others – in particular when comparing the North East to the South East – and yet despite this, our students achieve fantastic results and move on to high quality university degrees. 

As a sector we are rightly knocking on the doors of universities to support the shift to offer more inclusivity and diversity to allow students to achieve upward social mobility. This year more than ever, schools and colleges need to be ambitious for the students who we enrol onto A Levels. By focusing on targeted teaching and building productive relationships between teachers, students and Higher Education providers, we know that even more students can successfully attain the skills, knowledge and abilities needed to thrive at university and beyond. 

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